Why I’m Here at Gongju Fortress
Days like this at Korea’s Gongju Fortress explain Why I’m Here. I don’t care about the tacky souvenir shop that my back is facing, or the construction and tractor easily visible upon entering. My hope is to relive something once crucial to a former kingdom’s existence. That familiar “touristy” feel surrounds us at the Gongju Fortress guard-changing ceremony but we’ve traveled all morning to see this. This is why I’m here. I’m in this spot to see something special recreated. The colorful flags lining the fortress wall are blowing in the cool breeze, and here come the guards to pre-recorded, albeit powerful music.
A man beats a drum in the distance and keeps time. I’m trying to capture the guards and their colorful garb along with the green grass in the background, but brown dirt and dead leaves dominate my wide lens. The ceremony is moving along, full of intense noises and sounds all around. I notice that my wife and I are the only people here without children tagging along. This always seems to happen to me and makes me wonder why the other childless people in the world like stuff like this. Is there anything wrong with a kid at heart like me?
The guards’ attire and intense posture properly conveys the idea that this former dynasty – the Baekje – was in trouble when they chose Gongju (née Ungjin) as their capital. They’d spend a little over 60 years here (475-538) until moving onto Sabi in present-day and nearby Buyeo County. Gongju proved an important stop for the Baekje, as they strengthened their cause here before moving onto the better-situated Sabi. Bringing my mind back to the ceremony,, things are getting intense. More music and cool choreography from the sword-bearing guards and at this point, I’m envious that Koreans can recall this type of stuff – over 1000-year old traditions.
Seeing this instills a newfound appreciation for Korea’s historical preservation, no matter how staged and fabricated some places become. After the 15-minute ceremony, its business as usual with selfies and jockeying for the best shot available, avoiding the mindless intruders who don’t understand that my camera might be taking pictures of things. It reminds me to improving and to speed up my trigger finger. Better luck next time. We break away from the crowd and walk along the fortress wall. Even with the occasional intrusion by a family or group, I can go back and try imagining a life before this one. Magpies and other colorful birds stop and take a break on the path before moving back into the air. I can never get over the former’s wonderful blue-tipped tails fluttering about.
We walk through the tree-covered path, noting that spring is moving nicely into summer and giving this Saturday a beautiful green background to enjoy. This is better than the guard changing ceremony, though the colors and music will always remind me that the crowds were there instead of here. The action was there so we could have this. Walking around the path along the wall is a true contrast from the noisy main gate and the crowds snapping selfies with guards. We walk around the area and temple where warrior monks once fought against the Japanese in the 1590s. Though I didn’t see any hint of them, walking through the area reminds me of Simon Bond’s spectacular photos of warrior monks. His perfect execution of those scenes will be forever burned into my memories.
Walking along that 30m high wall with no guard rail reminded me of why I came to Korea, and came back after hitting bottom. This is why I’m here and why we should all be in similar places. Gongju Fortress had been on my mind for a while and after walking around its wall, I’m happy that we woke up early on a Saturday morning to drive out here. The day is not over yet, though, and we keep moving. The circular path leads us along the Geum River to the Manharu Pavilion, where a lotus pond was once a popular spot for rest and relaxation during these troubled times. Walking through the beautiful shadowy walkways and back into the sun, another ceremony sounds like it’s on the way. They happen every hour and it makes me realize the quickness of our walk around the fortress. We head across the street for a meal and head onto the next piece of history, in Buyeo.
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